“The invasion of Ukraine is a paradigm shift on the scale of 9/11,” British Foreign Minister Liz Truss told an audience in Washington on March 10. “How we respond today will set the pattern for this new era.”
Truss’s comments capture the prevailing view in Washington. A member of Congress remarked days later, “You’d have to go back to 9/11 to see such a unified commitment.” Considering how that post-9/11 unity was put to use, its invocation now should be viewed more as a warning than as encouragement. The United States and its allies made many disastrously wrong choices in the wake of 9/11, choices that had far-reaching consequences: the declaration of a global “war on terror,” the decision to turn the initial military intervention in Afghanistan into a long-term state-building operation, the invasion of Iraq, a worldwide campaign of kidnapping, torture, and assassination, to name a few. With those mistakes and abuses in mind, the United States must tread carefully as it responds to this new geopolitical turning point. It is desperately important that it makes the right choices this time around.
There is no doubt Russia’s horrendous war in Ukraine has engendered a sense of unity and purpose among many U.S. foreign-policy makers who have struggled to respond to the United States’ relative but steady decline in power. Russian aggression has also reinvigorated a moribund transatlantic alliance. The danger is that rather than develop a new paradigm for this era, policymakers will simply attempt to exhume an old “us versus them” Cold War model, shock it back to life, and put a tuxedo on it. As in the days after 9/11, a momentary sense of unity could be used to promote a set of tragically counterproductive policies.
So far, the Biden administration has delivered a robust but measured policy response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, rebuffing calls for more aggressive action that might be satisfying in the short term but could prove catastrophic down the road. Although the White House should be applauded for its judicious reaction to the Ukraine crisis, it also deserves scrutiny for failing to apply similar attention and effort in places where just as much is at stake.
The Biden administration deserves credit for its handling of the war in Ukraine thus far. Its diplomatic surge ahead of the invasion, including the effective use of declassified intelligence, and the strenuous effort to forge and maintain unity among the transatlantic alliance was expertly done. By declaring early and continually reiterating that U.S. troops would not fight a war in Ukraine, President Joe Biden has created space for a considerable amount of U.S. and allied material support for Ukraine’s defense. The United States and its allies should continue to supply these defensive weapons, but the administration should reject calls for the United States to threaten Russia more directly—for example, by signaling preparations to “win” a nuclear war, as a Wall Street Journal op-ed recently urged. Exhortations to “call Putin’s bluff” by ignoring his nuclear saber rattling and dramatically ramping up military support for Ukraine may be emotionally satisfying to pundits, but the deterrent effect of Russia’s thousands of nuclear weapons cannot be simply wished away: that arsenal must factor into the decision-making in Washington and allied capitals as leaders work to support Ukraine’s defense while avoiding unnecessary escalation.
The administration’s rallying of European allies and Asian partners such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan around a set of stringent sanctions has also been impressive. But the United States should make distinctions among the different sanctions it applies. Washington should strengthen sanctions that target regime officials with decision-making power and deny access to materials and technology necessary for Russia’s war effort. But broad-based sanctions that only further immiserate ordinary working people in Russia by cratering the economy should face more scrutiny. After all, it has never been clear how laying siege to a population that has little say in its government’s policy decisions is supposed to change those policies. As seen in Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, such sanctions tend to achieve little beyond entrenching the target regimes and raising the domestic political costs of future diplomacy (something that hawkish advocates of such sanctions occasionally admit is the point).
The United States should also be aware of the compounding impact of both the war and the sanctions (along with, of course, climate change) on global food supplies. Ukraine and Russia are both major exporters of fertilizer, grain, and wheat, and shortages are already having a cascading effect on the most vulnerable populations across the globe. There are few things that can inflame conflict as quickly as food scarcity. The world could be facing a mounting set of crises if a formula for bringing these exports back online is not found quickly.
The easiest way out of this mess, of course, would be for Russian President Vladimir Putin to agree to end his war. Although it is not the United States’ place to dictate terms to Ukraine or to stand in the way of any agreement that ends the bloodshed, the Biden administration and its allies should be clearer about what steps Russia needs to take to get relief from sanctions. This should obviously include a sustained and verified cease-fire and the creation of humanitarian corridors, leading to a process of Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory and a return of the thousands of Ukrainian citizens that Russian forces have deported to Russia.
In the meantime, while military and humanitarian supplies remain the most urgent need, Washington and its allies can do far more for Ukraine. Among these steps would be forgiving its foreign debt, a measure advocated by a number of Ukrainian officials and a wider coalition of activists. This also points to a widening of the aperture that should take place in the U.S. approach to global security. Ukraine is not the only country in the world whose government is saddled with crippling debt, forced to spend the country’s limited wealth filling the coffers of the International Monetary Fund rather than improving conditions for its own people. A more expansive program of international debt forgiveness would put the United States in a much better position to turn the reinvigorated transatlantic alliance toward a more genuine and sustainable global unity.
The fact is that the majority of the world’s population, particularly in the “global South,” has still not taken a side on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many countries are skeptical of the rallying calls being made by a set of powerful nations that they see as never having hesitated to exploit the less powerful when their interests required it. It is quite true that some of these governments’ hedging is driven by their own economic and military ties to Russia and China. At the same time, antipathy toward U.S. hegemony is genuine, particularly in regions that have endured American military interventions, coups, occupations, and assassinations.
The Biden administration’s attention to the Ukraine crisis puts in stark relief the areas where it has fallen short. One of the most egregious examples is its global vaccination efforts. Today some 2.7 billion people, mostly in Africa, are still waiting to get their first vaccine dose. Almost a year ago, after months of pressure from international activists and members of Congress, the Biden administration announced its support for a waiver on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) at the World Trade Organization, a measure that would temporarily suspend intellectual property protections and make sorely needed technologies available for COVID-19 testing, treatment, and vaccine production in poor countries. On May 2, the World Trade Organization director general finally submitted a text for a proposed “compromise” waiver, a draft of which had been leaked to reporters in March. According to many global health advocates, this compromise would not lift enough of the barriers blocking equitable access and could actually prove worse than the status quo. Doctors Without Borders urged countries to reject the proposal, saying that the plan “does not provide a meaningful solution to facilitate increasing people’s access to needed medical tools during the pandemic…and in fact would set a negative precedent for future global health challenges.”
The demand by the U.S. ambassador to the UN that countries in the global South get off “the sidelines” and condemn Russia’s war might ring less hollow if Washington itself would get off the sidelines when it comes to debt relief and vaccine access as first steps toward the larger redistribution of global power and wealth that these countries have urged.
What is more, the administration’s framing of the Russian war on Ukraine as symbolic of a battle between democracy and autocracy might be rhetorically satisfying but obscures more than clarifies the challenges and opportunities of this moment. First, it overlooks that the contest between democracy and autocracy is being waged within states as much as between them, including within the United States, as authoritarian-leaning ethnonationalist forces continue to gain strength—indeed, draw strength—from an us versus them discourse of civilizational struggle. It is also unconvincing in light of Washington’s own support for many autocratic governments, particularly (but certainly not only) in the Middle East. The Biden administration’s politically expedient coddling of repressive partners such as Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates doesn’t just undermine its democracy and human rights agenda among global audiences—it makes a mockery of it.
U.S. support for those governments—in the form of continued arms supplies and diplomatic support in the face of credible and serious allegations of ongoing human rights abuses and violations of international law—handicaps efforts to hold Russia accountable for credibly alleged crimes in Ukraine. Although there are important differences in what the United States did in Afghanistan and Iraq and what Russia is doing in Ukraine, one reason Putin and other war criminals around the world believe they can get away with such abuses is that the United States consistently refuses to impose any meaningful accountability, let alone submit to an international tribunal, for its own transgressions. If Washington is serious about an investigation into Russian war crimes in Ukraine, then one of the best things it can do is to join the International Criminal Court, as called for recently by Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Strengthening global rules against atrocities requires the United States to end its insistence that those rules don’t apply to the United States and its friends.
The democracy versus autocracy framing also glosses over how the United States continues to treat many autocratic regimes as key partners for stabilizing global energy markets, especially amid efforts to cut off Russian gas. Such tradeoffs may be necessary to address the more urgent crisis, but it is also worth noting that this is precisely the same logic that led the United States to treat Putin as an ally in the war on terror and former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as an ally against Iran, to name only two partners who became problems.
To prevent future administrations from having to go hat in hand to corrupt authoritarian petrostate friends for help against corrupt authoritarian petrostate enemies, the United States ought to be accelerating a transition to green energy both at home and abroad. Biden can use his powers as president under the Defense Production Act to jump-start a long-overdue and desperately needed shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. A recent bill sponsored by Democratic Representatives Cori Bush of Missouri and Jason Crow of Colorado and independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont would invest $150 billion in onshore renewable energy manufacturing to speed that process.
Finally, as the United States considers what future it wants, it is helpful to remember the choices it didn’t make when it had the opportunity. In the years leading up to 9/11, a global justice movement began to emerge in the global North. The protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 and months later against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington saw the mainstreaming of an environmental and labor coalition that had been fostered by years of work on the part of activists in the global South and that took a stand against the corporate-dominated international trade system that enabled neoliberal plunder, elite corruption, and environmental devastation. Unfortunately, much of that movement’s momentum was buried in the rubble of the World Trade Center.
In late 2019 and early 2020, the world saw a wave of protests driven by similar outrage against government corruption and self-dealing elites. These protest movements were momentarily snuffed out by the pandemic closures, but they will return, because the sources of those grievances endure. If the United States really wants to put itself on the side of democracy, it will hear these voices and commit to supporting a more expansive redistribution of global power and wealth and the building of a more humanitarian global order. The Biden administration took office having made bold promises about restoring American leadership for a new era. It now has an opportunity to fulfill those promises, but only if it has the courage to hear what the wider world is asking for. This approach would not come at the expense of the necessary and appropriate attention to Ukraine. This is not an either/or proposition but a both/and one. Properly framed as just one element of a renewed and genuine commitment to democracy and justice, the administration’s policy in Ukraine could herald a new era of American leadership. If all that Biden seeks in Ukraine, however, is to reaffirm U.S. dominance, it will be just the latest instance of the United States failing to meet the moment.
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